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I was looking for videos on YouTube, in my (almost) daily exercise to attempt improving my understanding of the spoken English, when I settled for a video entitled: "Why you will fail to have a great career"

When I picked this one, my first expectation was some monologue about how, in order to pursue some great career, you might possibly have to go through and overcome some hard times and initial difficulties and failures, which may, by reaction, push you towards great achievements.

After some listening, I began to realize that the intended meaning of the title was actually different. That is, the reasons or the excuses why people actually fail to have a great career.

At this point, I started wondering: how do we distinguish these different meanings, from the title alone ? Somehow, I feel that "Why you will fail having a great career" would have been perhaps less ambiguous to me. Would this have been correct?

A more general question is: how to avoid such ambiguities and what is the most effective or correct way to convey this kind of meaning, in instances like this one.

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closed as not a real question by Kristina Lopez, aedia λ, MετάEd, tchrist, FumbleFingers Mar 1 '13 at 23:08

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

To me, the title of that video indicates the second meaning so I do not find it ambiguous. Your suggestion of "Why you will fail having a great career" sounds a little ungrammatical and much more ambiguous. –  deadly Mar 1 '13 at 12:20
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/102138/… –  KitFox Mar 1 '13 at 13:05
The title of the video is cryptic, but I find its shorthand to be understandable and unambiguous. Arguably, the title would be clearer with the addition of a few words. For example, "Ten possible reasons why you will fail to have a great career," or "The top ten reasons why you may fail to have a great career." Does my recasting of the title make it clearer to you? –  rhetorician Mar 1 '13 at 17:49
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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Unfortunately I can't comment on the perceived ambiguities because I can't see the ambiguity myself. However I can tell you that the transitive verb "fail" is never directly followed by a noun/gerund ( in your case the gerund being "having"). You need a possessive pronoun such as: why will you fail your exams tomorrow?, or as in your case an infinitive: to eat, to have, to see, etc. So, basically the misunderstanding is in this transitive verb form.

Hope this helps a wee bit.

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Thank you. Very helpful –  Pam Mar 1 '13 at 17:01
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Consider a more obviously ambiguous example:

We need Einstein to fail to show how difficult formulating a theory of special relativity really is.

Sense a: We need Einstein to fail: that will show how difficult formulating a theory of special relativity really is. or

To show how difficult formulating a theory of special relativity really is, we need Einstein to fail. or

We need Einstein to fail, (in order to) to show how difficult formulating a theory of special relativity really is.

Sense b: We need Einstein to fail in his attempt to show how difficult formulating a theory of special relativity really is.

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Hmmm. I get that ambiguity can be normal. And, perhaps, specifying "in order to", instead of just "to", can make more obvious a final clause. –  Pam Mar 1 '13 at 17:13
It's unusual - I had to pinch some of Poirot's little grey cells to come up with a half-decent example. But there is always a possibility of misinterpreting isoformal structures. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 1 '13 at 20:00
"isoformal structures": very interesting. –  Pam Mar 2 '13 at 1:06
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